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Oh, Turkey Feathers!

My first standing committee assignment was to the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee. I served one and a half terms until the Speaker transferred me to the Education and Public Works Committee.  I think my transfer happened after I and other GOP members who served on the regulations subcommittee repeatedly questioned DHEC about their environmental fee increases.

When the House added two new standing committees, I was appointed to the Legislative Oversight Committee while retaining my seat on the Education Committee. Along with my standing committee service, I serve on the House Tax Policy Review Committee and Joint Committee on Pension Systems Review. In the past I served on the Index of Taxpaying Ability Study Committee.

Of all the bills and subjects discussed through all of the meetings of all of the above listed committees that I have sat through, none have been more varied and interesting than the bills that come through the Agriculture Committee. 

One such bill came up on the House Calendar this past week.  The Wild Turkey Feathers in Art bill (H3644) allows Native Americans to use wild turkey parts in arts and crafts that are offered for sale. The bill requires that a label be affixed to the product listing the artist name and identifying the product as “American Indian Art – resale of this product in its unaltered original condition is lawful in South Carolina.” The bill specifically prohibits the sale of wild turkey meat. Note that the sale of any wild animal meat is illegal in South Carolina.

At this point, I can only imagine the emails that I will receive from disgruntled voters grousing about how we are wasting time debating turkey feathers instead of (insert favorite cause). Maybe they will change their minds once they understand the historical political significance of this bill’s intent.

Beginning in Roman times wildlife was considered communal property by the Roman government. The right to hunt freely was not prohibited by the Roman state. The communal property concept carried over into English common law, but over time the Crown restricted the rights of individuals to hunt freely. Eventually, wildlife came under the complete control of the King or Sovereign, as he was sometimes known.

When the American colonies gained independence from England, they became sovereign states and gained the power to control wildlife within their individual borders. When they adopted the US Constitution 1789, the individual states did not delegate wildlife control to the federal government. 

From 1861 to 1865, the federal government deployed military force to make null and void the individual state sovereignty inherited from the colonies. After their military victory, the federal government began expanding its power over the states.  

Among the first post-war challenges to state sovereignty was wildlife control. Lawsuits against the federal government ensued and surprisingly in 1876 and 1896 the US Supreme Court affirmed the power of the states to control wildlife within their individual borders. 

I find it fascinating that every time the General Assembly passes a wildlife bill, South Carolina exercises one of the remaining sovereign powers originally guaranteed by the 10thAmendment to the US Constitution.

The sovereignty conflict over wildlife control in America was not limited to the states. Native Americans who live on treaty lands also claim sovereign control over wildlife. US District Courts have affirmed some of their sovereignty claims. The legal battles between the states, federal government and Native Americans over wildlife control continue to this day.

Who would have thought that a turkey feather bill could represent the accumulated rights of sovereign governments and individuals? It just shows how complex, intertwined and fragile our rights are.

For more information on wildlife law and to see where my facts come from please visit Michigan State College of Law


  1. Judy Albert

    Thank you for your service. I have heard of some crazy bills discussed in the past. One that I heard of last week was the marijuana bill I pray that most will have common sense enough not to vote that into law. We have enough crazy people without that being legal.
    A rep from sled gave us some statistics
    from other states where legal. I would like to request you vote against making it legal.
    Anyone that votes for it apparently has invested in the stock.
    Regards Judy Albert

  2. Andy Burleigh

    Interesting, Tommy. Most will miss how this will set a precedent that will protect inherited rights in other areas. Admittedly, it seems trivial on the face of it, however it could become the foundation to limiting the power of government over our everyday lives.

    Andy Burleigh
    205 North Miller Street, Greer, SC 29650
    864-848-0084 H. 404-625-5321 C

  3. John Warner

    “Surprisingly in 1876 and 1896 the US Supreme Court affirmed the power of the states to control wildlife within their individual borders.” Not surprising. The US Constitution gives the Federal government the right to regulate interstate commerce. There are numerous examples were Federal courts have protected a state’s right to regulate intrastate commerce inside it’s borders.

    We should all be grateful states can’t erect trade tariffs against each other, so the United States is one large common market. Trade tariffs with other countries is a bad idea too, but a different topic.

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